FIELDS OF PLAY: BACKYARDS AND ROOM
As an eleven year old child I was most happy while deeply engaged in delightful moments of outdoor play. Mainly I organized those moments around various ways to explore balls and bicycles, although any sport or game captured my attention. Any outdoor (and even indoor) environment contained the potential for a ball game. I scoped the possibilities wherever I happened to be.
I will explore the full range and variability of these games, organizing my memories according to places (or fields) of play, noting the cognitive and ecological significance in each venue. There were games of city, town, house, room, attic, backyard, neighborhood, schoolyard, park, and trail. Cross this geographic and spatial scheme with games that ranged from wildly improvisational to rules-based order, or from physical to cerebral, and you have a three fold axis of possibility.
House and neighborhood were the safest places to play. They provided a regularity of seasonal variety, a stable group of players, and a secure, bounded field. The exterior of our suburban house could serve as right field wall, basketball backboard, and provided the means and backdrop for any game that allowed us to throw a ball against a solid surface. Our yard was small and contained, big enough to have a catch, or to play wiffle ball, but not really large enough for more than two kids to run around in. We could play one on one wiffle ball (a game I continued to play well into my teenage years), one on one basketball (although there was barely any lateral flexibility), one on one tackle football, and a variety of solo games including stoop ball (throw a tennis ball off a stoop), roof ball (throw a ball onto the roof and catch it as it falls), and other games for sidewalks and driveways.
Our father suggested some of these games, always happy to share his own street ball memories from Brooklyn. Sometimes his memories would spark an idea for us, but we were much less interested in his games and mainly wanted to devise our own. Indeed my brother and I invented different solo games for our own purposes. We had different versions of stoopball. However, we would find ways to invoke common rules when we managed to play together.
There were all kinds of neighborhood street games. We played them on a nearby dead-end “court” road, a three minute stroll from the house. We had a terrific four on four softball game, highlighted by self-service batting, a neatly laid out stadium, with appropriately scaled distances proportioned for doubles, triples, and home runs. I’m not sure how we invented these games. The first time we’d play we’d figure out some rules. If the game was fun and we could attract a regular group of players, we’d continue to play it, make up some more rules, and somehow we’d have a consensually derived tradition of play.
Each room in our house presented a different rule-making challenge. My small room had a desk and drawer alignment that was symmetrical enough to resemble a baseball stadium. I invented “card baseball.” I organized an arrangement of baseball cards on the floor according to players positions on the field. The batting team used a baseball card as a bat. I would toss a small piece of rolled up cardboard, made with paper and spit, hit the little cardboard ball with the baseball card, and depending on where the ball landed, there were a series of rules allowing the cards on the field to retrieve it, while the batting card ran the bases. It was a decent game, but much more fun in its conception than execution, as I spent far too much time crawling around the floor.
Far better was block baseball, a game we played in our “finished” attic. I would build a stadium with blocks and use smaller blocks to represent the players on the field. In this two player game, the pitcher rolled a marble. The batter hit the marble with a pencil and if the marble hit one of the player blocks on the field the batter was out. Block baseball could get very raucous and it was also more interesting in theory then practice. It was great fun to build the stadiums and even more fun to destroy them.
My brother (Peter) and I also played hockey in the attic. We set up two chairs about thirty feet apart in a room of 30x15 dimensions. We had “real” hockey sticks that we used to knock around a tennis ball with the object of knocking the ball between the legs of the chair. This was a great game as we bounced the balls and each other off the attic walls.
Peter perfected “door basketball.” You would shoot a tennis ball at the molding on top of the door and score a basket if the ball caught the angle of the molding. We played this competitively, but mainly this was a game that my brother engaged in. He invented elaborate fantasy players on teams that combined real basketball stars with both real and imaginary friends. I preferred to stack chairs in our “den,” leaning them against the brick wall of a fireplace, stick a garbage pail on top, and shoot the tennis ball into the pail. The trick was to place the pail high enough that the game was a challenge, but not so high that it was too hard to retrieve the ball. I would play this in Saturday afternoon while watching the NBA game of the week (early 1960’s). This was when the game of the week was a big deal as television coverage of professional sports was much more limited than it is today.
I spent thousands of hours playing more cerebral board games both of the commercial variety and games of my own design. I invented dice baseball games that I played with my baseball cards. I ran countless tournaments and leagues while keeping notebooks of statistics and standings. My cousin Byron and I played a commercial game called Red Barber baseball. It was a game of pure luck but we invented variants that allowed it to more realistically reflect major league performances. We each kept our own notebooks of statistics and after a month or so we would exchange them and continue with each others leagues. Of course we had the most fun when we got to play these games together.
I invented numerous versions of dice baseball, dice basketball, dice football, and dice hockey, games of pure luck that somehow seemed skillful. For some of these games I would regularly write down the results. Other times I would keep it all in my head. As a result, I became so adept with numbers that I could go to the supermarket and tell my mother the total cost of her shopping more quickly than the cashier could ring it up on the cash register.
In my teenage years when I discovered the Strat-O-Matic series of games, I was absolutely overjoyed that there were games of so much realism in which players would perform so accurately. Yet the dice assured enough mystery and randomness to keep these games interesting, thus fueling my imagination about the seemingly unlimited ways the games could unfold.